Observance of the Christian Sabbath for the Reformed Christian

The Sabbath is quite sticky wicket today for many on the Reformed side of the fence. In the not too distant past it was pretty common and expected in Reformed circles that one would observe the first day of the week alone as Sabbath, but today many have either ignored the traditions expectation or just flat out disregarded it as an acquiesce to pagan culture. We’ll look first at how Westminster defines the Sabbath to show what our Confessions teach. Then look at a couple comments from Church leaders and theologians.

Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 21, “Of Religious Worship, and the Sabbath Day”. Section 7-8 reads:

7. As it is the law of nature, that, in general, a due proportion of time be set apart for the worship of God; so, in his Word, by a positive, moral, and perpetual commandment binding all men in all ages, he hath particularly appointed one day in seven, for a Sabbath, to be kept holy unto him: which, from the beginning of the world to the resurrection of Christ, was the last day of the week; and, from the resurrection of Christ, was changed into the first day of the week, which, in Scripture, is called the Lord’s day, and is to be continued to the end of the world, as the Christian Sabbath.
8. This Sabbath is then kept holy unto the Lord, when men, after a due preparing of their hearts, and ordering of their common affairs beforehand, do not only observe a holy rest, all the day, from their own works, words, and thoughts about their worldly employments and recreations, but also are taken up, the whole time, in the public and private exercises of his worship, and in the duties of necessity and mercy.

Now the verse in question for today’s discussion is Colossians 2:15-17. Here it seems that Paul clearly says that we are no longer held to any type of Sabbath observance. However Calvin in his Institutes says this concerning the issue.

“I am obliged to dwell a little longer on this, because some restless spirits are now making an outcry about the observance of the Lord’s day. They complain that Christian people are trained in Judaism, because some observance of days is retained. My reply is, That those days are observed by us without Judaism, because in this matter we differ widely from the Jews. We do not celebrate it with the most minute formality, as a ceremony by which we imagine that a spiritual mystery is typified, but we adopt it as a necessary remedy for preserving order in the church. Paul informs us that Christians are not to be judged in respect of its observance, because it is a shadow of something to come, (Col. 2:16); and, accordingly, he expresses a fear lest his labour among the Galatians should prove in vain, because they still observed days, (Gal. 4:10,11). And he tells the Romans that it is superstitious to make one day differ from another, (Rom. 14:5). But who, except those restless men, does not see what the observance is to which the Apostle refers? Those persons had no regard to that politic and ecclesiastical arrangement, but by retaining the days as types of spiritual things, they in so far obscured the glory of Christ, and the light of the Gospel. They did not desist from manual labour on the ground of its interfering with sacred study and meditation, but as a kind of religious observance; because they dreamed that by their cessation from labour, they were cultivating the mysteries which had of old been committed to them. It was, I say, against this preposterous observance of days that the Apostle inveighs, and not against that legitimate selection which is subservient to the peace of Christian society. For in the churches established by him, this was the use for which the Sabbath was retained. He tells the Corinthians to set the first day apart for collecting contributions for the relief of their brethren at Jerusalem, (1 Cor. 16:2). If superstition is dreaded, there was more danger in keeping the Jewish Sabbath than the Lord’s day as Christians now do. It being expedient to overthrow superstition, the Jewish holy day was abolished; and as a thing necessary to retain decency, order, and peace in the church, another day was appointed for that purpose.”



28. The purport of the commandment is, that being dead to our own affections and works, we meditate on the kingdom of God, and in order to such meditation, have recourse to the means which he has appointed. But as this commandment stands in peculiar circumstances apart from the others, the mode of exposition must be somewhat different. Early Christian writers are wont to call it typical, as containing the external observance of a day which was abolished with the other types on the advent of Christ. This is indeed true; but it leaves the half of the matter untouched. Wherefore, we must look deeper for our exposition, and attend to three cases in which it appears to me that the observance of this commandment consists. First, under the rest of the seventh days the divine Lawgiver meant to furnish the people of Israel with a type of the spiritual rest by which believers were to cease from their own works, and allow God to work in them. Secondly he meant that there should be a stated day on which they should assemble to hear the Law, and perform religious rites, or which, at least, they should specially employ in meditating on his works, and be thereby trained to piety. Thirdly, he meant that servants, and those who lived under the authority of others, should be indulged with a day of rest, and thus have some intermission from labour.

29. We are taught in many passages hat this adumbration of spiritual rest held a primary place in the Sabbath. Indeed, there is no commandment the observance of which the Almighty more strictly enforces. When he would intimate by the Prophets that religion was entirely subverted, he complains that his sabbaths were polluted, violated, not kept, not hallowed; as if, after it was neglected, there remained nothing in which he could be honoured. The observance of it he eulogises in the highest terms, and hence, among other divine privileges, the faithful set an extraordinary value on the revelation of the Sabbath. In Nehemiah, the Levites, in the public assembly, 340thus speak: “Thou madest known unto them thy holy sabbath, and commandedst them precepts, statutes, and laws, by the hand of Moses thy servant.” You see the singular honour which it holds among all the precepts of the Law. All this tends to celebrate the dignity of the mystery, which is most admirably expressed by Moses and Ezekiel. Thus in Exodus: “Verily my sabbaths shall ye keep: for it is a sign between me and you throughout your generations; that ye may know that I am the Lord that does sanctify you. Ye shall keep my sabbath therefore; for it is holy unto you: every one that defileth it shall surely be put to death: for whosoever does any work therein, that soul shall be cut off from among his people. Six days may work be done; but in the seventh is the sabbath of rest, holy to the Lord: whosoever does any work in the sabbath day, he shall surely be put to death. Wherefore the children of Israel shall keep the sabbath, to observe the sabbath throughout their generations, for a perpetual covenant. It is a sign between me and the children of Israel for ever,” (Exodus 31:13–17). Ezekiel is still more full, but the sum of what he says amounts to this: that the sabbath is a sign by which Israel might know that God is their sanctifier. If our sanctification consists in the mortification of our own will, the analogy between the external sign and the thing signified is most appropriate. We must rest entirely, in order that God may work in us; we must resign our own will, yield up our heart, and abandon all the lusts of the flesh. In short, we must desist from all the acts of our own mind, that God working in us, we may rest in him, as the Apostle also teaches (Heb. 3:13; 4:3, 9).

But what about Colossians 2:16? R.L Dabney responds saying:

After the new dispensation was set up, the Christians converted from among the Jews had generally combined the worship of Judaism with that of Christianity. They observed the Lord’s day, baptism and the Lord’s supper, but they also continued to keep the seventh day, circumcision and the passover. Nor was this wrong for them during the transition state. Acts (ch. 21) tells us that the apostle Paul did so himself. But at first it was proposed by then, to enforce this double system on all Gentile Christians as a permanent one. Of this plan we have the full history in Acts 15, where it was rebuked by the apostles and elders at Jerusalem. A certain part of the Jewish Christians, out of which ultimately grew the Ebionite sect, continued, however, to observe the forms of both dispensations, and restless spirits among the churches planted by Paul, which contained both Jewish and Gentile members, continued to make trouble on this point. Some of them conjoined with this Ebionite view the graver heresy of justification by the merit of ritual and ascetic observances, as we see in the Epistles to the Galatians and Colossians. Thus at that day this spectacle was exhibited: In the mixed Christians churches some brethren went to the synagogue on Saturday and to the church on Sunday, keeping both days holy. Other brethren — Gentiles — paid no respect to Saturday,and kept only Sunday. Others again — Jews — felt bound to keep not only Saturday and Sunday, but all the Jewish sacred times — the new moons, the paschal, pentecostal and atonement feasts and the sabbatical years. Here was ground of difference and of mutual accusations. This was the mischief to which the apostle had to bring a remedy. We may add that the question about dean and unclean meats was mingled with that about Jewish days. Was it right now for any Jewish Christians to do as the Gentile Christians did — use bacon, lard, and the butcher’s meat of animals which had been killed at pagan altars?

Now, let us see the divine truth and wisdom with which the apostle settles the disputes. One thing which he enjoins (at the end of Rom. 14) is, that whether any man’s light is wholly correct or not, he must act conscientiously. He must not do the things which honestly seemed to him wrong, for if he did there was sin, the sin of outraging his own conscience, even though his scruple turned out to be a mistake. Then, first of all, let everybody act conscientiously. He tells them, secondly (Rom. 14:3, 4), not to be censorious, but to respect each other’s conscientious convictions, even when they seemed groundless. For there is no positive sin in itself in letting alone bacon, for instance, or stopping work on Saturday; and if a brother’s mind is under error as to the duty of doing so, he deserves our respect at least for conscientiously denying himself in these things. But, third, when the apostle saw some professed Christians teaching that a man should make self-righteous merit by continuing to burden himself with the Jewish new-moons, sabbaths, fasts, annual passover feasts and sabbatical years, after the obligation of them in fact was repealed he confessed that this alarmed him (Gal. 4:11), and made him fed as though all his trouble in preaching salvation by free grace to them was to go for nothing. For this idea of making merit by observing self-imposed ceremonies and troublesome rites was entirely a different matter from those other conscientious mistakes, and it involved the very poison of will-worship and self-righteousness. Hence (Col. 2:16 to end) he expressly and solemnly condemns it all. This never had been the gospel, either under the Old Testament or the New. To appoint the means of grace for his people, this was God’s part. As long as any ordinance was commanded by him, our part was to make use of it, humbly and faithfully, as a means of grace, in order to strengthen the faith and repentance which bring us to the Saviour. But the moment any man undertook to build up his self-righteousness on will-worship he was under a soul-destroying error, which must not be tolerated one moment. Hence the apostle commands that these Jewish holy days, feasts and fasts, are not to be enforced on anybody; and he explains that they were no longer binding, because that new dispensation of which they were shadows or types had now come with its own divinely-appointed ordinances, and taken the place of others. He did not design to be understood as speaking at all of the Lord’s day, which is one of these New Testament ordinances. He means only the Jewish holy days. Does not the consistency of this view with itself and the Scriptures show that it is the true one?

But some one may rejoin that he was speaking of the Lord’s day also, because he says (Col. 2:16), “Let no man, therefore, judge you in respect of a holy day, or of the new-moon, or of the sabbath days.” This objector is under a delusion. The word “Sabbath” is never applied by a New Testament writer or by one of the writers of the primitive church to the Lord’s day or Christian Sabbath — never once. This all learned critics admit. All those early writers carefully reserve the word “Sabbath,” which is a Hebrew word, to denote the holy days of the Old Testament; and when they would speak of the holy day of the New Testament they call it “first day of the week” or “Lord’s day” or “Sunday.” The Westminster Assembly did indeed say of the Lord’s day, “which is the Christian Sabbath.” This was intended to teach an important truth which had been denied by the objectors, that the Lord’s day is to us by divine appointment what the Sabbath was to the Jews as to its main substance.

The word “Sabbath” was of wide significance among the Jews. It meant not only the hallowed seventh day, but also the “week” or space of seven days. The Pharisee says: “I fast twice in the week” (Luke 18:12). In the Greek it is “twice in the sabbath.” The word was also a common name for all the Jewish festivals, including even the whole sabbatical year, with new-moons, passovers, and such like holy days. “I gave them my sabbaths [my religious festivals] to be a sign between them and me” (Ezek. 20:12). “The land shall enjoy her sabbaths” (Lev. 23:24; 26:34; compare 2Chron. 36:21).

Well this ought to give us a good place to start. I will post some more regarding this subject the rest of the week.

Remember Thy Sabbath Day and Keep it Holy

Of the many Reformed doctrines that have been forgotten, argued out of existence, or just downright ignored by Confessional and liberal Presbyterians since the death of Princeton (The Hodges’, Warfield, etc…) and Southern theology (Robert Lewis Dabney, James Henley Thornwell, etc…) at the turn of the 20th century none is probably more widespread then the slipping away of the observance of the Sabbath day. Now I do not want to discuss Blue Laws or any such civil matter in this discussion but want to focus exclusively on the Sabbath observance of the New Testament Christian. There are two key passages for us to look at when discussing this issue. The first is Colossians 2:15-17

When He had disarmed the rulers and authorities, He made a public display of
them, having triumphed over them through Him. Therefore no one is to act as
your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon
or a Sabbath day things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the
substance belongs to Christ.

and the second is Hebrews 4:9

So there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God.

At first glance it would seem to look like these two verse contradict each other. One says that no one is to command you as to whether you should or should not observe the Sabbath because the Sabbath is but a shadow of things to come. The other says the Sabbath remains in effect for the people of God. Well in my posting this week I’ll expand more on these verses and others to show why I believe we are still to hold to a strict Sabbath observence in the New Testament Church.